In the Place 5 Race, Activism Is the Operative Word
Place 5 is one of two City Council seats with retiring incumbents -- which means that for the first time, come what may, fresh blood will be injected into a council on which Mayor Kirk Watson has long held monolithic power. Come June, one of the five people discussed herein will replace Council Member Bill Spelman, the citizen legislator who served one tour of duty and will now return to his day job as a professor at the University of Texas. Whom to choose? The careful council watcher will recognize most, if not all, of the names in the Place 5 race. Though the field is notable for its lack of a Hispanic (before Spelman, Place 5 was the one reserved by "gentleman's agreement" for a Hispanic member), it is, in its own way, diverse. Each candidate has his or her own niche of public activity, so take your pick between the campaign finance reformer, the bicycle advocate, the downtown Austin advocate, the neighborhoods advocate, or the disabilities advocate. That's Linda Curtis, Amy Babich, Will Wynn, Clare Barry, and Chip Howe, respectively. Each has his or her own perspective on how city government could run better.
Longtime civic activist Clare Barry is running on strong support from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, along with all the organizing strength and political baggage that implies. A 25-year Austinite, Barry holds a master's degree in architecture and founded the Association of Texas Women Architects. She's past president of Brentwood Neighborhood Association, and has been on a slew of city boards and commissions -- including Urban Forestry, Urban Transportation, and the Annexation Transition Committee. She has also been a frequent speaker before the council on a variety of issues.
Barry has been active in one of the biggest growth industries in civic life: neighborhoods. As the city simultaneously emphasizes Smart Growth and neighborhood self-determination, some rather testy turf battles have sprung up. Because Smart Growth means, among other things, increasing land-use density in the central city, old-time Austin neighborhoods worry that they'll have to accept land uses they hadn't planned on. "There is a lot of tension," Barry admits. "A whole lot." Because of that tension, Barry says, she is gunning for better representation of ANC concerns. "I think it's going to take someone like me to straighten these things out," she says. "I know all the neighborhood leaders well; they're going to be working on my campaign."
Much of the neighborhood vs. City Hall squabbling stems from a failure to communicate, Barry says. But on whose part? "There's a lot of misinformation that regular citizens have that the city staff is not doing anything to clarify," Barry says. "There's this idea that for some reason, within a huge radius of every bus stop on the transit corridor, there will be redevelopment, high density. I've been told that it's just flat-out not true, yet the city staff is just not willing to sit down and calm the fears of the people that are afraid. For some reason, they are refusing what citizens are asking them to do to make them feel more comfortable with all the Smart Growth stuff."
Council Member Daryl Slusher, presumably unaware of Barry's comments, nonetheless refuted them forcefully last Thursday, April 6, during a discussion with ANC President Will Bozeman on some Smart Growth ordinances the ANC was opposing (see "Council Watch," p.36). Slusher said that there had been too much complaining based on misinformation, and that (contrary to Barry's charge) city staff had in fact "spent hours and hours responding to that at repeated meetings, and I just don't find that productive. I don't think anybody at the city or on the council ever planned to wipe out 30% of any neighborhood, yet that's a lot of time lost arguing over that kind of thing." Barry wants to work things out: She says that in her first half hour on the council, she "would pick up the phone and call the city manager, and tell him we need to talk, and if he wasn't there, I'd probably go down to his office. I know right where it is."
For those who feel the council has given too much away in recent weeks in the name of pragmatism and compromise (not to mention pleasing the Legislature), Barry's campaign may represent the best chance for holding the line against the damaging effects of growth. A good number of those who have fashioned themselves canaries in the coal mine, warning of the dangers of current growth policies, support Barry. The list includes, among others, Mary Arnold and Shudde Fath, matriarchs of Austin's environmental movement.
"Not only do I have strong support from the neighborhoods," says Barry, "I also know I have the strong backing of the environmental community as well." Barry says she worked on the original SOS campaign and is "hopeful" that the SOS Alliance will follow the Sierra Club's example in endorsing her.
Will Wynn is perhaps best known for his service as past president of the Downtown Austin Alliance. He says he's also "an architect by training; a historic preservationist by passion." He rides the bus to work from his West Austin home, and he says he decides whether to take on clients for his historic restoration firm based on whether or not he can walk to the site from his downtown office.
But Wynn is no public transportation zealot. Though he says he supports light and commuter rail, he speaks frequently enough of the city's "traffic crisis" and the need for new roads that it's obvious he doesn't imagine Austin becoming a utopian auto-free zone any time soon. And he doesn't think the Watson council has done enough to avert the traffic crisis he diagnoses. "Frankly, there hasn't been much work on addressing our traffic crisis [by this council]. Our traffic crisis was worse today than it was three years ago, and now we are in crisis mode."
Wynn prescribes more and better roads, including the eastern alignment of Texas SH 130, as well as bicycle and pedestrian improvements, as remedies for the crisis. He also advocates "better land-use planning," including mixed-use development and higher density "where appropriate." Will Austin really be able to afford to do it all, as Wynn's model suggests? He's optimistic: "Currently, there are slightly different pools of funds to draw from. Light rail deals with a sales tax issue. SH 130 is a broader, different set of funds -- perhaps tolls. Sidewalks, bicycle capabilities, land-use planning -- those can be smaller amounts of dollars and they can come from different funds. ... My strong opinion is we need to move forward on all of these fronts."
With traffic concerns topping his priorities as a prospective council member, affordability and environmental issues round out the three key priorities that shape Wynn's campaign agenda. A staple in Wynn's stump speech is that he hopes not only that his two young daughters will be able to live in Austin when they grow up, but also that they will both want to and be able to afford to. To achieve the latter point, Wynn says, the council needs to be in the business of delivering more housing units in the central city. "Affordability is based on the laws of supply and demand," he says. "The city needs to increase the supply, because when demand outpaces it, prices go up quickly." Traffic control can help keep prices low, too, he says, as it takes the pressure of high demand off the most central neighborhoods. Otherwise, people desperate to avoid long commutes "will come in to the central city, and pay any price -- because they can afford to -- and drive the prices up for everyone else."
Wynn's commitment to historic preservation may affect his votes on central-city development as a council member. Regarding the controversial Gotham Condominium proposal on Town Lake, Wynn says, "I didn't support the Gotham project. At the end of the day, I never got comfortable with it; I felt it was inappropriate." As to how he would judge other new developments, Wynn says he's "pleased to see the creation of the Design Commission. You don't want to make [projects] overly difficult to build, but at the same time, we always want to have quality aesthetics in our downtown. There's good, talented people on that Design Commission. If the commission comes out in opposition to something, the rest of the community needs to start asking whether there's something wrong with the project."
Rounding out Wynn's top priorities is environmental protection. Wynn believes the city and private sector should pony up more dollars for land acquisition and preservation. He also wants in on the ground floor of master planning for the Prop. 2 land already acquired. That process, in fact, is now in its early stages, with the city soliciting public input on how the city-owned land should be used.
And though he wasn't involved in the historic truce inked last year between SOS, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and the Real Estate Council of Austin, Wynn counts as supporters the three people principally involved in the settlement -- Robin Rather, Gary Valdez, and David Armbrust. A member of the boards of the DAA, Austin Children's Museum, and the Heritage Society, Wynn also is eager to work with the various sectors of the high-tech community on Austin's civic advancement.
Though he includes enviro leaders Rather and former council member Brigid Shea among his supporters, both have recently resigned from the SOS board and are no longer actively involved in the organization. Does this indicate that Wynn might have a problem connecting with the powers that are currently running the show at SOS? (For example, political consultant and SOS PAC member Mike Blizzard is working for Barry's campaign.) Wynn doesn't think so. "SOS will remain a vital force in Austin," he says, and he pledges to work with the Alliance as a council member.
If Wynn is the establishment candidate, however, he's the establishment candidate with an edge. His endorsement list is diverse, and in addition to the usual suspects, also includes artists such as film director Richard Linklater and Salvage Vanguard Theatre founder Jason Neulander. And in addition to being co-owner of a downtown block slated to become an office tower, Wynn is also landlord to Emo's.
A regular bus rider, Wynn says he's ridden the bus "virtually every day" since 1997 and would like to continue to do so if elected. To that end, as a broader component to city of Austin employment incentives, he adds, "I would like to see a small fleet of vehicles available for council members and other staff that could be checked out for a couple of hours." The Place 5 race, incidentally, is chock-full of alternative transit advocates -- even beyond bicycle advocate Amy Babich. Barry rides the bus to work, too, and when the candidates met with the Chronicle editorial board, Barry and Wynn bandied about their bus schedules like old pros, and bragged about whose bus route would place them closer to City Hall.
Ask Linda Curtis why she's running for council, and she always gives the same answer: To take on Mayor Watson. Curtis says she'd have been happy to support other candidates in the race (specifically Clare Barry), but "there is nobody in this town who is willing to call this council, and particularly the mayor, on the way they are conducting decision making, which I think is extremely dangerous."
She cites the water deal the city worked out with the Lower Colorado River Authority as the most glaring example of what she views as an egregious and illegal process that violated open meetings laws. "I had had it when that LCRA deal went through in October," says Curtis. "It was a violation of the city charter -- $104 million of that was new debt, and they conducted that deal in secret for 10 months in violation of the Open Meetings Act. It made the emergency baseball stadium look like chump change. I thought someone was going to call a referendum. I would [have] led the petition drive."
Curtis hopes her campaign will embolden others to take Watson on, as well. "I think people are intimidated on the council and in the community in terms of the mayor's power, and somebody's got to take a stand and say no, we're not doing business this way." She expects that if she wins, reform-minded Austinites will be inspired to run for offices "from dog catcher to Congress. Whatever it takes." She cites the recent McCain phenomenon in the Republican presidential primary as evidence that the reform agenda does not lack for supporters.
Indeed, Curtis' campaign is all about the process of reform. Like McCain, Curtis admits she lacks sufficient information to comment on specific issues until she's had more time to study them. Ask her what her goals as a council member would be, and the answers include more public participation in council decisionmaking, and more campaign finance reform. In fact, Curtis wants to "reform the campaign finance reform" -- $100-per-person contribution limits for citywide electoral contenders -- that she herself was instrumental in winning approval for. "I got won over to the ACLU's position on this, which is, there's a balance between limiting special interests and limiting speech."
Ironically, Curtis agrees with Will Wynn -- tentatively, at least -- on what should be done about campaign finance reform: $500 limits per donor, citywide. If the city switches to single-member districts, which she supports, Curtis says $250 limits might be more appropriate. "What's most important," Curtis now argues, "is getting a public-financing system that's real, that gives insurgent candidates a leg up into the system." Curtis says if a such a system isn't forthcoming from the council, she'll take to the streets again, leading another petition drive to get the issue on the ballot.
Curtis' focus on process and not policy may be what's gaining her endorsements from independents, liberals, and conservatives alike, a group she describes as "a real hodgepodge of people." She counts among her endorsers the Black Women's Political Caucus, neighborhood association leaders from Northwest Austin (or "the Northwest territories," as Curtis calls them), and former City Council Member Bob Larson. Curtis says that although Larson was "a great nemesis of the environmental movement" during his days on the council, he's a "principled, independent Republican ... you can have a debate with him."
Political reform, Curtis says, "is the cutting-edge issue in Austin. Not because the solutions aren't there, but because the deals go down every day so fast. This mayor is unbelievably competent ... he's using Austin as a trampoline for higher office and I am sick of it. No matter who gets elected, they need to get elected on this platform."
With an attitude like that, how does Curtis expect to work with Watson to get things done as a council member? "To be perfectly honest, I don't think I would be working with the mayor. If I get elected, I would be fighting with the mayor for quite a while," Curtis says. "We desperately need someone who would stop this 7-0 voting. I think that it's a difference in how you understand the importance of public meetings. What's important to see, and what I think [Watson] disagrees with, is that the end result is changed by the process that goes before. I think he thinks that you're going to get the same result [with public input], so why bother? I don't believe that."
Running for the Austin City Council is "not something that I ever thought that I'd do, not something that comes naturally," says Amy Babich. She's running for one reason, and one reason only: "Since everyone on the council does drive a car, they don't notice what they're doing in non-motorized transportation," she says. She speaks, almost exclusively, about transportation: how cars are bad and bicycles are good, and how the city needs to change in order to accommodate the carless. "We need to make a big effort on sidewalks. If you're going to revitalize downtown, at least think how you're going to move pedestrians and bicycles in and out of downtown." Babich supports light rail, along with "a transportation system to support light rail [such as sidewalks and bus routes]. You can't just have light rail and nothing else."
Some have questioned whether a bicycle-riding Babich would be able to effectively serve as a council member, given the heady schedule of off-site appointments a council member is expected to keep. Probably not, says Babich, but that's why she's running -- to change all that. "If it isn't [feasible], there's something really wrong with the city. It should be possible not only without a car, but without a bicycle. It should be possible for any citizen to serve on the City Council. If we're running a city of transportation haves and have-nots, and only the haves can have a say in government, there's something very wrong with the city. Especially since the haves' form of transportation involves paying tribute to the car and oil companies, which are the most destructive companies in the world."
Much of Babich's public persona has been created by her strident -- and voluminous -- output of letters to the editor of The Austin Chronicle, most of which deal with the treachery of the automobile culture and her preference for bicycles. Beyond the "Postmarks" pages and her Easy Street Recumbent Bicycles, the business she runs with her husband, Babich is not well known in the city. But there's one constituency she thinks she'd win hands-down, if only they were allowed to vote. "If kids could vote, I would win the election," she says, "because I ride the coolest bike in town, and everybody else drives a boring old car." One of her campaign issues, in fact, is kids' mobility. "Kids used to be able to get around by themselves but they don't any more; they're driven around by their parents."
Though her views on public transportation may be viewed as utopian by some, as a candidate at least, Babich is realistic -- "I hope that if I don't win, which I think is a good possibility," she says, "that some of the other candidates would be interested in these policies." (Her pleas have not fallen on deaf ears. In response, Clare Barry offered to appoint Babich to a city board or commission where she could advocate for her causes.)
Babich argues that it is exactly her outsider status that would make her a valuable council member. "I notice things that people who are on the council don't," Babich says. "My education is not in government, education, or law, it's in math and science. Most people on the council are trained in law and government, and they think if they can just make an agreement, then they can control pollution. But pollution doesn't recognize agreements. I sometimes think that people who study only man-made things don't have enough respect for the world that we didn't make. I am kind of an outsider, but in a way that might be useful."
Chip knows Howe, goes the slogan. Though he's a dark horse in a field of bigger-name candidates, Howe has distinguished himself by making a couple of specific and well-received policy proposals. One of Howe's proposals concerns the question of how to encourage more participation and open government: "I would encourage all neighborhood associations to meet with the council every three months, give us your top three priorities, and let's implement them," Howe says. "In the next three months, come back and hold us accountable. Make sure we're doing that."
Howe says he would also prohibit council meetings from going past 11pm. "Some of these meetings are going until 2 and 3am," he says. "Go home! Get sleep! I don't think people can be up that late and make those types of decisions and go to work the next day."
Howe is also the candidate who comes out most strongly against light rail, arguing that the city should significantly expand the bus system before spending hundreds of millions of dollars on trains. "I strongly oppose the current light rail [proposal]. The first phase will be $648 million, the second phase, over a billion. Plus the amount of harm it's going to do the neighborhoods, who are very much alarmed about what's going on with light rail." Howe's proposal includes an express bus system with lanes connecting US183, Loop 360, and Hwy. 71 in a loop around the city that would include MoPac and I-35. "It would take you 40 minutes north to south, and you'd have only one bus change to get to your destination after you get off the express," he says. (Linda Curtis, for one, says she likes Howe's idea. "I'm very pro-public transportation, but I'm not convinced this city needs light rail until we deal with the bus system," Curtis says.)
Among his qualifications for council, Howe cites his service as a member of the Mayor's Committee on Disabilities, to which he was appointed by then-mayor Bruce Todd in the early Nineties. A Corpus Christi native and Austin resident since 1971, Howe says he's running for council because "transportation is out of hand; only a few neighborhoods have a say in city government; affordable housing, living wage [issues], and our air and water quality all need very close attention immediately." Howe also boasts his advocacy for the arts. For the last six years, he's been a volunteer for the Austin Summer Musical, and is a member of the local chapter of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. And Howe claims his campaign is gaining momentum through door-to-door contact with voters, adding that former Council Member Max Nofziger is schooling him in the ways of grassroots organization.